You May Miss Merkel More Than You Think

The lame-duck German chancellor has become a problem for the world. The frontrunner to take over will probably be even worse.

German Chancellor and leader of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) Angela Merkel chats with her colleague Armin Laschet, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, at a meeting of the CDU leadership on Nov. 27, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.
German Chancellor and leader of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) Angela Merkel chats with her colleague Armin Laschet, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, at a meeting of the CDU leadership on Nov. 27, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“Angela Merkel should quit soon,” the Economist declared last month. “Angela Merkel is running out of road and should step down,” the Financial Times opined last week. Some leading German media haven’t been much kinder—and it’s not difficult to see why.

After more than 14 years in power, and with nearly two more to go, the German chancellor and her loveless grand-coalition government seem tired and out of ideas. At home, the economy is faltering and the far-right is on the rise. In neighboring France, President Emmanuel Macron can barely hide his frustration with Merkel’s risk-averse approach to Europe. A new world shaped by competition between China and a U.S. administration that calls Europe a “foe” has shaken the foundations of German prosperity and security. And yet Merkel has failed to articulate a new vision for the country.

But it would be wrong to see her departure as the solution to Germany’s strategic ambiguity problem. How Germany defines its foreign-policy interests in the post-Merkel era, and whether it can emerge from a prolonged period of drift, will ultimately depend on who replaces her and what sort of government that person leads. And the early signs suggest Germany could continue down the enigmatic policy path that has defined the end of the Merkel era, confounding Berlin’s partners in Europe and beyond.

In recent weeks, Armin Laschet, the 59-year-old premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, has emerged as the front-runner in the contest to replace Merkel. By coopting a leading conservative rival, Health Minister Jens Spahn, he has thrown other contenders, notably longtime Merkel critic Friedrich Merz, onto the defensive. On April 25, at a congress of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a new leader of the party will be chosen. That person will instantly become the odds-on favourite to succeed Merkel in 2021.

There are still many “ifs” around the Merkel succession and what it will mean for German policy. Both Merz and Norbert Röttgen, a third contender who is seen as a long shot, are defenders of the transatlantic relationship and tough critics of China who argue that Germany must break out of its postwar reticence and take on more responsibility for its own security. If one of them were to pull out a victory next month and go on to replace Merkel, the contours of German foreign policy would surely shift.

There is also a chance that the resurgent Greens could emerge as the strongest political force after the next federal election. In that case, regardless of who wins the CDU leadership contest, Germany would get its first Green chancellor—presumably one of the party’s two leaders, Robert Habeck or Annalena Baerbock. This could push Germany towards a more values-based foreign policy that doubles down on European integration and is tougher on Russia and China.

But Laschet is another story—a cautious moderate in the Merkel mode, but with a dose of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder’s business-über-alles reflex and readiness to engage with authoritarians.

In recent years, Laschet has warned against demonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin for his annexation of Crimea, criticized Washington for supporting rebels trying to overthrow Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, and, as leader of the German state with the closest economic ties to China, voiced support for deepening the relationship with Beijing.

Asked in November about shutting out Chinese telecommunications group Huawei from Germany’s 5G network—a move supported by his CDU rivals Röttgen and Merz—Laschet repeated Merkel’s economy-over-security talking points: “The consequences of exclusion would be a delay in deploying this technology. That can’t be our goal. As an export-oriented country we have a large interest in free trade. German business lives from international exports, also those to China.”

Positions such as these led Schröder, a Social Democrat whose reputation has been badly tarnished by his close ties to Putin and lobbying on behalf of Russian energy interests, to endorse Laschet for chancellor last year in a joint interview the two did.

Laschet has since distanced himself from the politically toxic former chancellor. But his comments on a range of foreign-policy topics prompted top-selling German newspaper Bild last month to demand a pledge from him not to “cozy up” to authoritarians.

Particularly striking were remarks he made at the German-Russian Forum in Berlin a year ago, in which he appeared to cast doubt on whether Russia was engaged in election meddling, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, saying there was a need to clear up which of these allegations were true and which are invented. A year earlier, in the aftermath of Russia’s poisoning of former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, he openly questioned the British government’s blaming of Moscow for the attack.

Asked about some of these comments in a recent interview, Laschet condemned Russia as an “aggressor” in Ukraine and called Assad a “war criminal.”

He has also played down the need for more German burden-sharing in the military sphere, a key demand of the Trump administration and European partners such as France. Late last year, he criticized outgoing CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer for proposing a safe zone for civilians fleeing fighting in Syria and rejected her suggestion that Germany shoulder more responsibility for international security, saying the country was already “internationally active” in places such as Afghanistan, Mali, and off the coast of Somalia.

To his credit, Laschet has not resorted to America-bashing in the face of U.S. President Donald Trump’s unrelenting verbal attacks on Germany and Europe, describing the United States as Berlin’s closest partner outside of Europe. But some in Berlin are concerned that a future CDU-Greens coalition, led by either Laschet or Habeck, would deepen the divide with Washington, particularly if Trump wins reelection later this year. After Trump’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, Habeck described the president as an “adversary”.

At the Munich Security Conference in February, Laschet, who grew up in Aachen near the border with Belgium and served as a member of the European Parliament before rising up the political ranks in North Rhine-Westphalia, issued a rare criticism of Merkel for her tepid response to Macron’s ideas for reforming Europe. He has praised former Chancellor Helmut Kohl for having the courage to push initiatives like the euro currency despite opposition from many Germans. But as leader of North-Rhine Westphalia, he has been more consensus builder than bold visionary.

Still, Jana Puglierin, who heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes Laschet could inject new momentum into the Franco-German relationship. He is likely to be more open to Macron’s idea to engage with Russia. And if he were to lead a coalition with the Greens, some of the paralysis generated by years of grand-coalition government could be broken.

“I share the hope that a change of chancellor and coalition would bring a new dynamic, but we have to remain realistic,” she said. “German reluctance to take on more responsibility will persist. It’s a question of whether we can inch forward or not.”

Noah Barkin is a managing editor at the Rhodium Group and senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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